The global COVID-19 pandemic has done a lot to further the cause of home working. It’s something many are celebrating, with 75% of managers saying they’d like to keep working from home, according to a survey carried out by the Chartered Management Institute.
And with good reason. Many employees have been campaigning for home working for years, citing benefits from saving time and money on commuting to being able to focus and be productive without the distraction of colleagues around.
But there are downsides to working from home on a long term basis. For example, creating a sense of work life balance can be harder when your office and your home environments are one and the same. Rather than “working from home”, people have started to talk about “living at work”.
There are also plenty of home-based distractions, from children to household chores, and a lot of people miss the human interaction of those ‘water cooler’ moments with colleagues, not to mention lunchtime and post-work socialising.
But there’s another disadvantage that isn’t as widely discussed. One that is, if anything, more important: the risk of homeworking widening inequality gaps within the workforce. For HR departments, this needs to be a priority focus.
Where a workforce is entirely office based, a business can ensure a degree of homogeneity in terms of provision for its employees. Most people in a shared office space will have the same type of desk, for example, the same quality of chair, the same air conditioning system.
But in the case of home workers, businesses are far less able to ensure that each individual is provided for in the same way. Where someone’s personal living circumstances were once a private matter, they have become a HR concern.
For example, a senior manager may be able to work in a home study with an expensive orthopedic chair, plenty of natural light and good air circulation, while the nanny takes care of the kids. Whereas a junior member of staff may be stuck on a makeshift desk in their bedroom with constant interruptions from young children or flatmates and rising damp playing havoc with their health.
Likewise that senior manager is unlikely to feel the impact of not having access to free tea and coffee, a subsidised canteen, or having to use more electricity, central heating and even toilet paper. But for their less-well paid junior this could mean the difference between being able to live on their salary or not.
These two examples show the disadvantages that those on lower incomes may be facing, but there is also evidence to suggest that women and BAME employees may be more severely impacted, raising further issues for HR in terms of equality targets.
For example, according to a study by the Fawcett Society, 45% of home working BAME women say they are struggling to cope with the demands on their time compared to 35% of white women and 30% of white men.
And then there’s technology. While home workers are generally provided with a fairly standard laptop, that’s usually where the provision ends. Little thought is given to internet access and quality for example, which can vary widely from one area to another and may well be dependent on what the individual resident can afford.
As a result, those in areas of poor provision or those who can’t afford to pay out for faster broadband services or technology such as wifi boosters are automatically at a disadvantage. Likewise those with less technical knowledge, such as some older members of staff, might not even be aware that there is a solution - or a problem, for that matter.
This disadvantage can play out in many ways. Firstly, there’s the impact on stress levels. Daily frustrations build up, whether it’s web pages taking ages to load, not being able to log onto the company intranet or constantly having to ask people to repeat themselves on a video conference call because your connection keeps dropping out.
There’s also a potential impact on productivity when load times lag, connectivity issues cause delays and conversations are interrupted. Not only does this in itself cause poor morale, but deadlines and targets may not be hit, impacting performance and potentially the future of individual careers.
Without a way for businesses to monitor the human experience of their employees’ technological environments, they are left to rely on those employees speaking up. And that isn’t always easy to do, especially if it means admitting that they can’t afford decent broadband.
For HR professionals, the advent of home working on a large scale poses many practical challenges. It is important that fairness doesn’t become a casualty during these times of change.
There is a great deal that can be done to alleviate the challenges of home working, from subsidising electricity and heating bills to tracking internet connectivity, application performance and the human experience in order to provide appropriate tech solutions.
The key is to be proactive in seeking out and solving problems, rather than relying on individuals to speak up about the challenges they’re facing.
Only when businesses can measure and understand the human experience of the new ecosystem people are working in can they hope to reduce inequality, increase productivity and protect their workforce for the future.
Ask yourself the following:
If you need help with any of the challenges above then reach out to one of our Digital Workplace Consultants today.